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What is the Bowen family systems theory?

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Bowen family systems theory views the family as a complex emotional unit with intensely connected members. The theory states that families profoundly affect the individual members' feelings, thoughts and actions. This makes the family members interdependent and promotes cohesiveness and cooperation. However, a high amount of tension in the family can lead to one family member absorbing too much anxiety, which makes that member vulnerable to depression, alcoholism or physical illness.

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The theory was developed by Dr. Murray Bowen, an American psychiatrist and professor at Georgetown University. He began developing his systems theory of the family in the 1950s.

One of Bowen's core theories concerns the differentiation of the self. Bowen taught that people have the ability to separate their own intellectual and emotional functioning from their original family. People with low differentiation rely on other people's acceptance and approval. They conform themselves to please others or try to force others to conform to themselves. These people are prone to stress and have difficulty adjusting to changes.

Bowen family systems theory assumes that human relationship systems evolved over several billion years. Knowledge of how these systems operate in families can lead to effective options for solving problems within social systems.

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