Bowen’s Family Therapy Techniques (8 Concepts)

Bowen believed that our family history helped shape our socio-cultural values and beliefs. For generations, these beliefs have been passed down and molded our thoughts and experiences. 

Through family therapy, we can understand an individual in the framework of his/her relationships within the family. It can help identify and modify dysfunctional patterns in the family in order to improve communication among family members. 

In this article, we will be exploring the 8 different concepts of family therapy techniques by Murray Bowen.

Bowen’s Family Therapy Techniques

Listed below are 8 concepts of Bowen’s Family Therapy Techniques:

  • Differentiation of Self
  • Triangulation
  • Nuclear Family Emotional Process
  • Family Projection Process
  • Multigenerational Transmission Process
  • Sibling Position
  • Emotional Cutoff
  • Societal Emotional Process

Now let us look at these concepts in more detail:

Differentiation of Self 

This concept reflects upon how an individual can differentiate between his/her thoughts and feelings. Family relationships affect an individual’s thought patterns, feelings, and actions. People often find it difficult to differentiate between individual and group thinking. 

Inability to develop a person’s ‘self’ can hamper their functioning. They are more easily influenced by others and later on end up manipulating other people’s thought patterns as well. 

People with a high differentiation of self tend to have better functioning as well as better relationships with family members as boundaries are established. They also have a good emotional connection with the family.  


Triangulation occurs when a third person is involved in a dyadic relationship. The third person is often introduced when there is a conflict or instability in the dyadic relationship. People in a triangle rely on the third person to mediate their conflict. 

Bowen viewed triangulation as a means to reduce stress and found it to be beneficial in the relationship of the other two people. The third person can facilitate healthier communication as well as bring them closer.

For instance, if you and your father are arguing over something, then either one of you may approach your mother to complain about the other. In this scenario, your mother will try to make you two think logically and instead of picking sides, she will try to mend your bond. 

Nuclear Family Emotional Process

In a nuclear family, parents are likely to pass on their emotional beliefs onto their children. This process goes on for generations where the parents would pass down certain beliefs that affect the relationship patterns of the future generations. 

The dysfunctionality between two partners in a marriage causes psychological impairments in their children. People marry partners with the same level of differentiation as their own. They bring together their own belief systems and try to find commonalities to raise their children.

The response from this emotional process can lead to conflicts, distancing, stress, anxiety and other psychological dysfunctionalities within the nuclear family. Emotional or physical dysfunction in the family can lead to chronic illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders and substance abuse.

Family Projection Process

In the Family Projection Process, the parents project or transmit their stress, anxiety, relationship problems and emotional dysfunctionalities onto their children which results in psychological and emotional distress in the child. 

Instead of catering to their own issues, they try to help their child overcome their distresses. This results in further damage and the child becomes dependent on the parents to come and fix their problems whenever they are distressed.

The parent’s main focus should be finding a solution to their own shortcomings before rushing in to help their child. It is natural for a parent to be concerned about their child’s well being but it is necessary for them to provide their child support and encouragement to resolve their issues on their own.

Multigenerational Transmission Process

Bowen argues that people choose their partners who have a similar level of differentiation of self as themselves and hence, the emotional dysfunctionality is transmitted from one generation to the next.

With each generation, the level of differentiation decreases, which inturn increases the level of emotional turmoil within the family. For instance, if your parents have a low level of differentiation, then you and your siblings are likely to have an even lower level of differentiation.

According to Bowen, the only way to resolve this is for people to deal with all of their unresolved conflicts and fix their emotional dysfunctionalities. Only then, can the future generations have a higher level of differentiation. 

Sibling Position

According to Bowen, the birth order of siblings determines their roles and shapes their personality in the family. Gaining insights of a particular family helps predict the role of a child in the family’s emotional process.

There are some roles that may be predefined in most families. For instance, the first born is always more likely to be the ‘responsible’ one and as the ‘authoritative’ figure who has to take care of the younger siblings, acting like the third parent.

The laterborns are generally given more liberty and freedom to explore their interests than the first born. These roles in the sibling order may be predefined from previous generations and passed down. 

Emotional Cutoff

An emotional cutoff refers to cutting contact with the family (or parents), but the cutting of contact can also be psychological when the individual is just not speaking to them despite being in close proximity.

An emotional cutoff also occurs when the children leave the nest as a sign of their independence but maintain an emotional distance from their family. This opens them to be more emotionally available to new relationships.

Cutting off contact with the family or certain family members may be done as an attempt to be free from the stress it may have caused in the past, but it only increases anxiety because of the unresolved conflicts. 

Societal Emotional Process

The role of society is crucial in the functionality of a family. Toxic social issues like race, prejudice, caste, class, can cause turmoil within a family. Societal emotional processes are better dealt with when a family has a higher level of differentiation. 

When it comes to societal emotional processes, gender biases and ethnic differences also play a big role in family functionality. While we know that for centuries, men and women have been treated differently in society, however in the modern world, these ideologies are changing. 

Similarly, ethnic and cultural differences within a family can lead to different beliefs which may not necessarily indicate dysfunctionality. By achieving a higher level of differentiation, a family can cope with these types of societal systems.


In this article we listed and explained each of the 8 concepts of Bowen’s family therapy techniques. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Bowen Family Therapy Techniques

What techniques are used in systemic family therapy?

The most effective technique in systemic family therapy is ‘circular questioning’. These types of questions focus on introducing the inter-connection of particular family members from a different perspective. 

For instance, “who do you feel the most closest to?”, this makes the members of the family reflect and understand the perspectives of each of the individuals in the family. Asking circular questions can help make changes in the behaviour of at least one family member. 

What is Bowen family therapy?

Murray Bowen viewed ‘family’ as an emotional system. His family systems therapy is considered to be a connection from psychodynamic perspectives to systems frameworks. Bowen believed that families are a result of an evolutionary process.

Bowen explains his theory with the help of 8 techniques:

  • Differentiation of Self
  • Triangles
  • Nuclear Family Emotional Process
  • Family Projection Process
  • Multigenerational Transmission Process
  • Sibling Position
  • Emotional Cutoff
  • Societal Emotional Process

What are the basic goals of Bowen’s approach?

Bowen’s approach does not aim towards changing people, nor does it try to solve their problems. Practitioners of Bowen’s approach view therapy as an opportunity for people to learn more about themselves and allow them to be responsible for their own problems.

The two main goals of Bowen’s approach are:

  • Reducing stress and anxiety so as to provide a relief from symptoms
  • Increasing differentiation of self for each member of the family

What is the role of the therapist in Bowen family therapy?

The role of the therapist in Bowen family therapy is to prevent family members from being viewed in terms of their roles and help them to be viewed as individuals who are facing their own problems. 

The therapist also guides the family members to recognise and identify triangulation as well as learn to take responsibility for their own needs, shortcomings as well as strengths.


What is Bowenian Family Therapy?

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