1. DIFFERENTIATION OF SELF
Differentiation of self is a central concept in Bowenian Theory. Differentiation and fusion are how Bowen describes the extent to which people can separate their emotional and intellectual spheres (Rabstejnek, n.d.). “.. a way of characterizing the balance/imbalance of two life forces or instincts: the force for togetherness and the force for individuality” (Titelman, 2014, p14).
People with higher levels of differentiation have less emotional reactivity, with an ability to calm their emotions and make more thoughtful and intentional decisions. Having a higher level of independence, more tolerance to stress, they are less prone to triangulation. An ability to remove themselves from emotional entanglements, allows them to have a closeness without getting lost in the relationship. Generally, relationships are considered fulfilling.
On the other hand, fusion, or lack of differentiation as described by Brown (1999), is where family harmony is chosen over the individual. Such people are more emotively reactive, having difficulty in managing thoughtful behavior. They have difficulty saying no to people, tending to be critical and judgmental, and are overly concerned about approval from others. Dependent on others, difficulty in communicating, and making decisions, they are prone to triangulation. Problematic relationships tend to be repeated rather than learning from their mistakes.
The concept of triangulation, along with differentiation of self, is central to Bowen’s Theory. It is said to occur when the anxiety in a dyad is relieved by involving a third party who either takes sides or provides a detour for the anxiety. A common example of this is when a parent brings in a child to stabilize the tension with the other parent. Other examples include, an in-law, friend, a co-worker, alcohol, drugs or an affair. They all work as a triangulating stabilizer. Triangles are not necessarily dysfunctional. It’s when they become rigid, when the third party distracts from the dyad, and the problem remains unsolved, the triangling is considered problematic. Bowen sited that triangles tended to repeat themselves across generations. For example, when a family member leaves, perhaps through death, marriage, divorce, or for a variety of reasons, someone else can be brought into the triangle. Perhaps the eldest child leaves due to marriage, the next eldest sibling is drawn into the parents’ tensions. (Brown, 1999)
3. NUCLEAR FAMILY EMOTIONAL SYSTEM
The nuclear family emotional system describes the family’s emotional system during a single generation. Bowen focuses on the impact of undifferentiation on the emotional functioning of a single generation family. Symptoms tend to develop during times of increased and prolonged family tension. The tension level depends on the stress a family encounters, how a family adapts to stress, and on a family’s connection with extended family and social networks. Symptoms can manifest in one of three categories (Brown, 1999).
Couple conflict is one category. As family tension increases, spouses get more anxious, externalizing their anxiety into the marital relationship. Focusing on what is wrong with the other, there is an attempt to control, that is meet with resistance. Symptoms in a spouse is a second category. Here pressure is put on the other to think and act in certain ways. In a fused relationship the other yields to the pressure to preserve harmony. If tensions rise further, the spouse who made the most adjustments is prone to develop systems. The third symptom of fusion is when symptoms develop in a child. It causes decreased differentiation in subsequent generations. An example of this is of the mother projecting her anxieties onto her child/children, thereby serving the purpose of soothing her own anxiety (Gehart, 2014).
4. Family Projection Process
The family projection process describes how parents transmit their emotional problems to a child. The projection process can impair the functioning of one or more children and increase their vulnerability to developing clinical symptoms. Bowen describes this as happening when a child responds anxiously to the tension in a parent’s relationship (Brown, 1999). Ways in which it can affect their lives are via relationship sensitivities such as heightened needs for attention and approval, or difficulty in dealing with expectations. Perhaps they develop a tendency to blame others or feeling responsible for the happiness of others or that others are responsible for one’s own happiness.
5. Emotional Cutoff
“Bowen describes ’emotional cutoff’ as the way people manage the intensity of fusion between the generations” (Brown, 1999). People try managing their unresolved emotional issues with family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them, or by moving away from their families. Relationships may seem to be better if people cutoff, but the problems are dormant and not resolved. There are however, cases where cutoff may be appropriate, such as where sexual abuse has not been acknowledged (Gehart, 2014).