female voice: Applications to Bowen’s family systems theory, The

Knudson-Martin, Carmen

Recently, feminist scholars have called upon us to become aware of hidden gender biases within the theories guiding family therapy (Ault-Riche, 1986; Boss & Weiner, 1988; Goldner, 1985; Goodrich, Rampage, Ellman, & Halstead, 1988; Hare-Mustin, 1989; Luepnitz, 1988; McGoldrick, Anderson, & Walsh, 1989; Walters, Carter, Papp, & Silverstein, 1988). These authors have argued that traditional theories were constructed without attention to the female experience and have called for the construction of theories which include that experience.

Bowen’s family systems theory, which was intended to be a broad, universal theory to guide therapeutic interventions (Bowen, 1978), has been hailed as a theory which has features that lend it well to feminist practice and criticized for overvaluing stereotypically male characteristics (Ault-Riche, 1986; Luepnitz, 1988; Walsh & Scheinkman, 1989). The cornerstones upon which Bowen’s family systems theory is based are the concepts of differentiation of the self and anxiety due to emotional fusion (Bowen, 1978). The purpose of this paper is to reconceptualize these concepts in a way that takes into account findings from recent studies of female development.

The paper is organized into four parts: (a) a review of the literature describing the female experience, (b) a review and critique of the constructs of differentiation and emotional fusion underpinning Bowen’s theory, (c) an expanded model for diagnosis and treatment, and (d) a case example contrasting a traditional application of Bowen’s theory with the expanded view of the theory. The paper will not specifically address other important aspects of Bowen’s family systems theory, such as triangulation, the family projection process, emotional cutoff, and the multigenerational transmission process, all of which are important for a complete understanding and application of Bowen’s theory.


Studies of female development consistently find that women develop a connected sense of self and define themselves through attachments to others. Thus, defining development as evolving a separate and distinct sense of self, as Bowen’s differentiation scale appears to do (Ault-Riche, 1986), leaves out the female experience in which women discover themselves through connections with others.

Chodorow (1978) distinguished male and female processes of self-development by noting that boys have to discriminate between themselves and their mothers–the usual primary caregivers–making separateness an important aspect of male development. Girls, in contrast, have to define themselves through the experience of continuity with the caregiver. Similarly, Gilligan (1982) found that females respond to moral dilemmas through a connected orientation emphasizing responsibility and care for others that was quite different from Kolberg’s (1969) more separate and masculine model emphasizing internalized principles and a concern for justice.

According to Lyons (1983), separate selves experience others in terms of reciprocity -do unto others as you would have them do unto you–and make moral judgments based on impersonal procedures for establishing justice or fairness. Connected selves, on the other hand, tend to seek to understand the other’s frame of reference in order to experience a kind of harmony or connection with the other. Their tendency to make moral judgments based on the needs and wishes of everyone involved in a particular situation can make them appear less evolved as a self if judged by the standard of separate selves.

Identity formation for women is not a matter of whether or not they define themselves in the context of relationships but how relationships are used in that process (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986; Josselson, 1987). Some confound attachment and sameness, using relationships for security. Others take more risks and use relationships for self-validation and support. Some develop awareness of themselves in the context of others; others do not.

Maintaining the equation between the emerging selfhood of a young woman and her mother’s identity is especially tricky (Apter, 1990). According to Apter, mother-daughter conflict during adolescence is actually the daughter’s attempt to make her mother see and acknowledge her new self-awareness and her anger when mother does not. The purpose of the struggle is not to achieve separateness but to maintain connection while evolving a unique self.

The female challenge, according to studies of female development, is becoming different while maintaining connection at the same time. Maturity is being able to integrate the self and other, that is, being able to listen to others while still hearing one’s own voice or being able to attend to another person and feel related to that person in spite of enormous differences. Thus, identity formation involves balancing many commitments and aspirations and requires success in relatedness both at home and at work (Belenky et al., 1986). Because they experience their identity in relation to others, choosing to whom one is anchored is an important mechanism for identity development for women.

Similarly, sociolinguist Deborah Tannen (1990) found that women seek connection in their conversation; men seek to establish status or position. According to Tannen, recognizing gender differences frees us from the burden of individual pathology. This is particularly relevant as we examine a theory that seeks to account for the development of human behavior and mental illness. To the extent that seeking connection has been defined as pathological or, at the very least, immature in existing theories, there has been a bias against women.

There is still much we do not know about female development. It is important not to stereotype a female ideal uncritically (Jagger, 1991; Pierce, 1991; Spelman, 1991). Women do not uniformly respond to others in caring ways. Few studies have included the plurality of female voices, taking into account how gender norms may differ according to race or class (Davenport & Yurich, 1991; Moody-Adams, 1991). We still know little about how people decide who is worthy of care and who is not; how assumptions about race, class, and religion influence how we describe our responsibility; or the presence of hostility, hate, and contempt among women (Spelman, 1991).

What we do know is that normal development is more complex than previously described. It is important to study not only how people learn to define themselves as separate selves but also how we learn to define ourselves in connection with others. Traditional theories of human development have been based on a “separate” model where maturity is equated with increasing autonomy and rational, self-directed behavior. When judged according to this model, women often appear not to have developed a sense of self, and persons with highly developed reason have been considered more mature than those with highly developed emotions. It is my hope that this paper will contribute to explicating a more comprehensive theory that takes into account how the capacity for connecting with others contributes to the healthy development of self.


Bowen’s family systems theory provides a valuable framework within which to integrate the female experience because it places individual development in the context of a biologically rooted interdependence and conceptualizes the human family as an emotional unit or field influencing the functioning of each person. Cutting one’s self off from significant others is viewed as symptomatic. However, the theory’s explanation of differentiation does not fully capture the reciprocal nature of individuality and togetherness and therefore does not completely include the female experience. To understand the limitations of Bowen’s theory, I will briefly review how Bowen’s theory conceptualizes the differentiation process and anxiety within relationships, using references to the most recent and thorough explication of Bowen’s theory written by Michael Kerr and Murray Bowen in 1988.


The theory identifies three interrelated systems which influence human behavior: the emotional system, the feeling system, and the intellectual system. The emotional system drives and regulates human behavior. It predates the development of the cerebral cortex and provides a behavioral link between humans and other animals. Bowen’s theory distinguishes emotions, which are preconscious and apply to all living things, from feelings, which can be felt or made conscious and are a more recent development in the evolutionary sense. However, the feeling system and its utility are less well-articulated in Bowen’s theory than the other two systems.

The intellectual system includes the capacity to know and to understand and gives humans the ability to observe internal emotional, feeling, and subjective states and to have some choice regarding how to respond to these states. Bowen’s theory focuses on the development of this system as key to the differentiation process. When this system is not well-developed, thinking is overwhelmed by intense feeling and emotional responses (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. 60). This conceptualization, in which development of the intellectual system mediates responses to the feeling and emotional systems, is diagramed in Figure 1. (Figure 1 omitted).

Bowen’s theory is based on the idea of two competing life forces: individuality and togetherness. According to the theory, the need for other people heightens emotional reactivity to others and decreases the ability to think and respond independently. Figure 2 demonstrates that at low levels of differentiation, people move toward togetherness and away from individuality when there is tension in the relationship. (Figure 2 omitted). As differentiation increases, individuality is better developed, and togetherness needs are less intense (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. 65).

In my view, conceptualizing individuality and togetherness as competing forces means that the focus of therapy is primarily on overcoming togetherness needs and increasing individuality. The assumption appears to be that when one becomes a more autonomous individual, healthy relationships will automatically result (Walsh & Scheinkman, 1989). Even though differentiation is defined as a process by which individuality and togetherness are managed within a relationship system (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. 95), how to develop togetherness is only tangentially addressed.

The well-differentiated person is conceptualized according to the qualities for which men are socialized (Luepnitz, 1988). He or she functions separately within relationships and is described as “inner-directed, principle-oriented, and goal-directed” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, pp. 106-107). According to Kerr and Bowen (1988), persons at the highest levels of differentiation function autonomously; are not affected by praise or criticism; assume “total responsibility for the self” (p. 107); process the emotional, subjective, and feeling on an objective level; and use the intellect to overrule the emotional system when necessary. The well-differentiated person has a “solid self…made up of firmly held convictions and beliefs which are formed slowly and can be changed only from within the self…never by coercion or persuasion from others” (p. 107). This definition does not appear to take into account the possibility of integrating the other into the definition of self in the way connected selves do. Nor does it address the potential value of knowledge acquired through the feeling system and subjectivity. Yet for many persons, especially women, the feeling system may be their primary source of self-awareness.

In Bowen’s theory the poorly differentiated person invests excessive amounts of life energy in togetherness, causing the emotional boundaries between persons to become blurred and the thinking responses to become overwhelmed by the feelings and emotions generated in the relationship. Being sensitive to emotional disharmony and the opinion of others–as connected selves tend to be–is described as characteristic of low differentiation. From this perspective differentiation requires developing the capacity to overcome the togetherness needs. I believe this is because togetherness and individuality are defined as competing forces.


Having observed numerous couples and families struggling to balance togetherness and individuality in their relationships, it is easy to see the importance Bowen’s theory ascribes to anxiety as an “infectious agent” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. 77) in relationships, making perceived hurts, slights, criticisms, and rejections progressively more influential. In poorly differentiated relationships there are constant pressures to adapt to one another in ways that will reduce each other’s anxiety at the same time each fights the other’s attempts to control or influence him or her. In better differentiated relationships the level of anxiety is low, so closeness in relationships is more tolerable and most stresses can be managed without impaired function.

Bowen conceptualizes emotional distance or cutoff in relationships and most clinical symptoms as the result of efforts to reduce the anxiety stemming from excessive togetherness needs. The goal of therapy, then, is to reduce anxiety by developing control over emotional reactivity. This is accomplished by increasing the basic level of differentiation, that is, separating thinking from feeling to achieve more choice over automatic behaviors driven by the emotional system and subjectivity (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. 131). Then, according to Bowen, people are free to relate and resolve problems.

Understanding the potentially destructive power of emotional reactivity and anxiety within undifferentiated relationships is very helpful. However, when all of the anxiety is attributed to togetherness forces and anxiety is reduced by decreasing the togetherness needs, the tension between the forces of individuality and togetherness appear to be unidirectional. That is, one moves away from togetherness needs toward more autonomous functioning.

Even though Bowen’s theory utilizes interactions with others in the process of differentiation, the importance of connections to others in defining a sense of self is not well articulated. The focus on overcoming togetherness, rationality, and autonomy in Bowen’s theory resulted in a masculine model of relationships composed of separate, autonomous selves which tended to obscure the value of connections.


There are three ways Bowen’s theory may be expanded to fully include the female experience:

1. Because women develop in the context of their relationships, female differentiation involves learning to hear and trust one’s own voice at the same time one attends to the voices of others. In many cases, tuning in on feelings may be the most effective way for a woman to recognize her own authority (Belenky et al., 1986). If the therapeutic process values thinking more than feeling, it may inadvertently collude with those forces making it difficult for a woman to hear and trust herself.

I suggest conceptualizing the feeling and the intellectual systems as parallel and mutually reinforcing. This means more emphasis on distinguishing the emotional system–which is the source of reactivity–from the feeling system, which can be developed to higher levels of awareness. Figure 3 shows that depending on the individual’s strength, either the intellectual system or the feeling system might be the primary path toward differentiation (choice over emotional reactivity). (Figure 3 omitted). Higher levels of differentiation would include an integration of these functions. Such a conceptualization would allow the integration of therapeutic techniques which increase the capacity to utilize subjective and emotional experience but would not violate Bowen’s assumptions regarding the power of the emotional system and the goal of choice.

2. According to Bowen’s conceptualization, individuality appears to be a prerequisite for healthy connectedness. Women, however, do not develop in this linear fashion. They discover themselves at the same time they develop and maintain relationships. I suggest that individuality and togetherness are not inherently competitive. It is more accurate to think of togetherness and individuality as reciprocal processes wherein one facilitates the development of the other. At low levels of differentiation, neither can develop. This reconceptualization is shown in Figure 4. (Figure 4 omitted).

Several studies of individuation among young adults support this conceptualization. Quintana and Kerr (1993), for example, found that participation in supportive, nurturing relationships was predictive of psychological health in college students and that gratification of nurturance needs was particularly important to healthy adjustments among women. Legner (1988) found that greater family cohesion was associated with higher levels of individuation for both males and females. Similarly, several theorists have suggested that self-development involves successive moves toward individuation followed by moves toward reconnection (Josselon, 1988; Kegan, 1982).

Though individuality and togetherness support each other, the development of one does not automatically result in the development of the other. Just as one must learn how to function autonomously, one must also learn how to connect. Because each supports the development of the other, therapy can be more effective if both are addressed concurrently. It also makes possible a view of differentiation which more clearly integrates maintaining connections with individuality.

3. Bowen’s theory sees anxiety resulting from excessive togetherness needs. According to the theory, differentiation is facilitated by reducing anxiety and focusing on the development of an intellectual system. I believe it is more helpful to conceptualize the anxiety as arising from the tension between the two needs. At low levels of differentiation, the anxiety is high. The therapist may need to manage the anxiety around togetherness and individuality, depending on which force is producing the most anxiety at a particular time. In addition, the temporary stimulation of anxiety may provide useful awareness of and information from the feeling system.

The expanded model may be summarized as follows. Areas where the theory has been reconceptualized or reemphasized are in italics:

1. Because individuals are born into a shared emotional field, the behavior of individuals within a family system is connected.

2. There are strong life forces toward the drive for togetherness and the drive toward individuality.

3. At low levels of differentiation, persons are excessively reactive to the emotions generated within a relationship system and have difficulty in maintaining either individuality or togetherness.

4. Most emotional problems and dysfunctional behaviors are the result of efforts to cope with the anxiety produced in undifferentiated relationships.

5. Differentiated individuals use information from both the feeling and intellectual systems to make choices regarding their behavior.

6. The abilities to achieve healthy togetherness and individuality occur in a reciprocal relationship to one another. As one increases, so can the other.

7. Highly differentiated individuals recognize their needs for and responsibilities to one another at the same time that they have the capacity for autonomous functioning. Such persons respect each other, maintain clear individual boundaries, and function cooperatively.

8. The goal of therapy is to increase levels of differentiation by developing the feeling and intellectual systems (as separate functions) and by fostering the reciprocal experiences of togetherness and separateness.


This expanded view is offered in the hope that Bowen’s theory can continue to be a useful theoretical foundation for family therapy and at the same time acknowledge a wider variety of human experience than the language and clinical techniques of Bowen’s theory imply. The following case example demonstrates how the expanded theory may be applied. It includes interventions not normally associated with Bowenian therapy.

Mary (age 26) and Bob (age 27) have been married for 7 years and have two young children, ages 6 and 3. They approach their first session of marital therapy tentatively. They sit at opposite ends of the couch and avoid looking at each other. In response to a question about what prompted their visit, Mary tearfully reports that everything is going wrong in their marriage. They can’t even talk to each other anymore without fighting. She appears hurt, disillusioned, and angry at Bob for failing to meet her needs. As Mary speaks, Bob becomes more upright in his seat and becomes visibly more tense. He begins to speak in a slow and controlled voice, then shrugs and gives up, saying he doesn’t know what is going on or what to do. The couple sits in icy silence.

Her tears and his physical tension are examples of emotional reactivity expressed according to typical gendered patterns. Their icy silence suggests emotional distancing in response to a high level of anxiety in their relationship. According to Bowen’s theory, this couple exhibits a low level of differentiation, making communication difficult and limiting the flexibility of their responses to each other. The expanded model would also begin with this definition of the problem. How to proceed, however, would be different in several ways.

1. FOCUSING ON TOGETHERNESS NEEDS. The traditional Bowenian approach would deemphasize the togetherness forces and encourage autonomous functioning. Mary and Bob would be directed away from a focus on the other and toward a self-focus where each takes responsibility for his or her own emotional and behavioral responses (Guerin, Fay, Burden, & Kautto, 1987, p. 149). The problem with this approach is that it does not necessarily attend to the anxiety in the relationship that results from their fears of losing togetherness and can limit the security necessary in order to risk developing individuality.

The expanded approach would work toward increasing self-responsibility but would also deliberately reinforce the togetherness needs. Thus, in response to Bob’s statement that he doesn’t know what to do, the therapist pursues his desire to please Mary with the goal of reducing their anxiety by validating and supporting their togetherness needs.

Therapist: You would like to know how to meet Mary’s needs.

Bob: Yes, but no matter what I do she’s never satisfied.

Therapist: It hurts you not to be able to satisfy Mary’s needs?

Bob: She’s my wife. Of course I want to make her happy.

Therapist: Mary, did you know how important it is to Bob to make you happy?

Mary: Well, I guess I really didn’t think about it. (Angrily.) He doesn’t show it very much.

Therapist: Sounds like you’re disappointed that he’s not been able to figure out how to be there for you. He must be very important to you.

Mary: Of course he’s important. He’s my husband.

Therapist: I’m impressed by how much you both matter to each other.

Throughout therapy, the therapist would maintain a balance between interventions designed to increase the couple’s sense of togetherness and interventions designed to promote awareness of the self and individual responsibility. The attention to facilitating connectedness and attachment makes it easier to promote differentiation, especially for Mary (Goodrich et al., 1988).

2. HANDLING EMOTIONS. Following the traditional Bowenian approach, the therapist would maintain a calm tone and focus on the facts rather than the feelings (Bowen, 1978). Each spouse would be encouraged to speak directly to the therapist, encouraging a “flow of rationality” (p. 313). Affective experience would be limited by steering Mary and Bob away from emotional issues and directing them toward cognitive awareness. The problem with this approach is that the flow of empathy is away from Mary and values more Bob’s style of dealing with anxiety (Goodrich et al., 1988).

When working according to the expanded model, the therapist would maintain balance by also increasing affective awareness. This requires focusing on feelings as well as facts and may be facilitated by encouraging some interaction between the couple. For example, the therapist encourages Mary to ask Bob to meet a specific need for the purpose of helping each person begin to develop their feeling systems:

Therapist: Let’s try an experiment. (Directs the couple toward each other.) Mary, why don’t you help Bob know what he should do by asking him to do something for you.

Mary: (She looks at Bob and hesitates.)

Therapist: Go ahead. Just ask him for one thing you’d like from him. Something specific.

Mary: (Softly.) Well, Bob, I’d like it if you would spend some time at home on Saturday mornings.

Therapist: Bob…

Bob: Well, I could do that. I didn’t know you wanted me home. You never seemed interested in having me there.

Therapist: Okay. Stop a moment. Mary, when you asked Bob to meet your need, what was going on inside of you?

Mary: I don’t know…I was scared.

Therapist: You were scared that…

Mary: (Tears.) I was scared I’d ask too much.

Therapist: You were afraid to ask too much…Bob, what was going on inside you when she asked you to stay home?

Bob: Relief, I guess. I never know what she wants.

Next, the therapist asks Bob to ask something of Mary. He is unable to ask anything. He reports a strong feeling that Mary should know his needs. It appears that he, like many men, has never learned how to identify his own needs. After helping Mary and Bob begin to recognize and explore their feelings in this situation, the therapist helps the couple cognitively understand what is happening between them when both are afraid to make demands. At this point the therapist turns to a more traditional Bowenian exploration of their families of origin and relationship histories for the purpose of helping each identify the sources of their fears within their individual experiences. S/he helps them see how their past experiences, including gender socializations, have been carried into their marriage.

At the session’s end the therapist coaches Bob and Mary to notice the times when they want something from their partners but are afraid to ask and to see if they can notice when their partners are afraid. The assignment supports the development of each person’s individuality at the same time that it helps them retain their togetherness in a more positive way. As the couple leaves, the therapist reminds them how anxious they are to please each other but cautions them to be patient with themselves and their partners.

3. MANAGING ANXIETY. The traditional Bowenian approach encourages differentiation by keeping away from the emotional field and reducing anxiety. However, if the goal is to develop the feeling system as well as the intellectual system, it is more useful to think in terms of managing the anxiety. As in the above example, the therapist will sometimes increase the anxiety to elicit new information from affective experience or when individuals appear to be out of touch with their own affective experience. The therapist will then decrease the anxiety to process the experience and inform the intellectual system. Doing so requires that the therapist be a well-differentiated individual who is able to manage heightened anxiety and emotional expressiveness as well as create a more rational environment when needed.

As Mary and Bob’s therapy continues, the therapist utilizes a variety of techniques to help the couple differentiate and build connection. Both are coached as they experiment with new ways of interacting in their families of origin. Mary’s responses are often emotional. The therapist encourages the expression of these emotions in session. Mary apologizes for her behavior. Bob acts uncomfortable. The therapist reassures Mary that her response was reasonable and understandable and helps Bob to be more comfortable responding to her emotions.

The result of the therapy is that Mary and Bob develop as individuals and as a couple simultaneously. Mary learns to value her affective nature and to let herself feel without becoming overwhelmed by the emotions. Bob becomes less frightened of her expression of feelings. He is more comfortable because he understands why she feels as she does. Both learn to focus inward instead of blaming but also to acknowledge their needs for each other. They are no longer afraid to make demands. Less anxiety exists in their relationship, and they are more able to deal with conflict and be emotionally close.


We have models for family functioning which clearly define optimally functioning families as balancing autonomy and respect for individuals with a joy in relating and an awareness that individuals need other people for identity and human satisfaction (Beavers & Hampson, 1991). Models of human development which emphasize autonomy and objectivity at the expense of connection and emotional expressiveness not only discredit the female experience but may limit the development of healthy family functioning.

In this paper I have expanded Bowen’s theory by (a) including the development of the feeling system as part of the process of differentiation, (b) conceptualizing togetherness and individuality as reciprocal rather than competing needs, and (c) suggesting the management of anxiety in the therapeutic process rather than its reduction. These changes go beyond giving a feminist twist to intervention. They suggest fundamental changes in the way differentiation and healthy self-development are conceptualized.

The expanded model contributes to Bowen’s goal of developing a more comprehensive framework for understanding human behavior and guiding clinical practice. By emphasizing the development of both the feeling and intellectual systems and balancing autonomy and connectedness, it encourages men and women to move beyond the limits of traditional roles and supports a conceptualization of individuality in a context of commitment to others.


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Carmen Knudson-Martin, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Marriage and Family Therapy program, Department of Health and Human Development, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT 59717.

Copyright American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Jan 1994

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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