What Is Bowenian Family Therapy?

Family on a mental health therapy session

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What Is Bowenian Family Therapy?

Bowenian family therapy is an approach to treatment that was developed by the psychiatrist Murray Bowen. Bowen believed that patterns persist in families across generations, and problematic behaviors can be passed down and create similar conflicts.

Bowen created this approach to therapy aimed at fostering healthy communication between family members, breaking toxic or harmful patterns, and developing healthy differentiation and autonomy among each individual within the family unit. Bowenian family therapy uses an intergenerational lens to identify these patterns and communication techniques to promote healthy boundaries and relationships within the family.

Types of Bowenian Family Therapy

As the name implies, Bowenian family therapy typically involves multiple family members working together to address family conflicts and improve relationships within the family unit.

Family therapy can include couple’s work, parent and child relationship work, work with blended families, or work with multiple generations of a family.

However, a Bowenian therapist can also work with individuals. Individual talk therapy can include an emphasis on identifying intergenerational conflicts and patterns, setting appropriate boundaries and differentiation between the individual and their family members, and communication skills. If an individual wants to work on these issues and including additional family members is not possible, they can still benefit from techniques of Bowenian family therapy.

Techniques of Bowenian Family Therapy

Practitioners of Bowenian family therapy have several interventions that are specific to this approach to treatment, including: 

  • Genograms: A genogram is a graphic of a family that includes information about history, relationships, psychology, and patterns. It allows the therapist and client to explore these patterns and connections to guide treatment. Bowenian therapists will typically create a genogram at the start of therapy but continue to add information throughout the course of treatment.
  • Differentiating emotions and self-differentiation: Bowenian therapists will help clients identify the emotions occurring within the family unit and note when they are taking on the emotions of other family members. This technique involves helping each family member recognize their individual emotions and identities alongside their role in the family unit.
  • I-statements: An “I-statement” is a communication technique that emphasizes the emotions of the speaker rather than the attributes of the other person. It aims to communicate the emotion behind the statement rather than bringing up defensiveness or feelings of blame in the listener. For example, instead of, “You never help around the house,” the client would be encouraged to rephrase as, “I feel overwhelmed with chores and would like more help from you.”
  • Triangles: While triangulation in family therapy refers to a form of manipulation in which members are pitted against each other, Bowenian family therapy uses the concept of emotional triangles to symbolize stable relationship networks. In Bowenian family therapy, families work to create healthy balance and support in these emotional triangles.
  • Intergenerational patterns: Using the genogram, a Bowenian family therapist will work to identify patterns persisting between generations and help families identify which patterns benefit them and which patterns they want to challenge and break out of.
  • Normalizing challenges: Bowenian family therapists emphasize that challenges and conflicts will occur even after therapy terminates. They prepare clients to face future difficulties before they arise.

What Bowenian Family Therapy Can Help With

Bowenian family therapy can help families who are experiencing conflict or communication difficulties. It can also help individuals experiencing anxiety and stress. It is particularly helpful if you want to address the impact of previous generations and current family dynamics on your mental health and current symptoms.

Couples can also benefit from Bowenian family therapy when working to identify how each person’s family history informs their approach to communication and conflict resolution.

Benefits of Bowenian Family Therapy

Because Bowenian family therapy emphasizes healthy communication skills and conflict resolution, participating in this type of therapy can help foster healthy relationships and appropriate boundaries. Clients develop insight into their behaviors and develop a deeper understanding of why they make the choices they make, the impact of these choices on their relationships, and how to make healthy and lasting changes.

Families that engage in Bowenian family therapy together learn to identify the triangles within the unit and utilize these interconnected relationships to make relationships stronger. They are taught healthy and appropriate communication styles that foster productive conflict resolution rather than defensiveness and arguments. Members can also understand each other on a deeper level by identifying intergenerational patterns.

Finally, each family member learns a healthy balance between connectedness and personal identity within the family unit.

Effectiveness of Bowenian Family Therapy

There is limited empirical evidence for Bowenian family therapy at this time. However, the Bowenian technique of self-differentiation can be effective in alleviating anxiety symptoms. In couple’s therapy, Bowenian family therapy can improve feelings of happiness and empathy between partners due to improved communication skills and increased understanding of both the self and the other.

Additionally, research has shown that Bowenian family therapy can aid in family reunification when child protection has been involved, as parents can learn to identify abusive patterns in their family genogram and work to break these patterns.

Things to Consider

Because Bowenian family therapy can be used individually, with couples, or with a larger family unit, it is an option for many people seeking therapy support. Clients need to be prepared to put in the work to practice making changes to communication styles and boundaries, especially if other family members are not directly involved in treatment.

Disrupting long-standing patterns is stressful and challenging even if it is beneficial in the long run.

Additionally, this approach includes exploring transgenerational patterns and behaviors, and as such, it may bring up intergenerational trauma. Prior to starting treatment, clients should be prepared for this possibility and have coping skills in place to address difficult emotions that might come up over the course of treatment.

As with all forms of therapy, Bowenian family therapy is not a “magic pill” that will suddenly fix problems. It takes significant client engagement and willingness to make needed changes.

How to Get Started

If Bowenian family therapy seems to be a good fit for your therapy goals and mental health needs, you can begin looking for therapists who offer this approach. Many therapists will note that they are trained in Bowenian family therapy on their directory profiles.

You can also contact your insurance company to get information about what services are covered. Although specific theoretical orientations typically are not excluded by insurance plans, the company can give you information about what your out-of-pocket cost might be as well as the names of in-network providers.

If you feel like current family dynamics and intergenerational patterns are impacting your mental health and family relationships, Bowenian family therapy might help you address these concerns in a healthy way.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Thomas R, Shelley-Tremblay J, Joanning H. Anxiety explains self-differentiation: implications for Bowenian approaches to marriage and family therapy. The American Journal of Family Therapy. 2021;49(5):534-549.

  2. Amini, O., Naser Shariati, M. The Effectiveness of Bowen's style Family Therapy on Increasing the Happiness and Empathy marital of Couples Referring to Isfahan Counseling Center. Journal of Human Relations Studies. 2021;1(3), 23-31.

  3. Thompson HM, Wojciak AS, Cooley ME. Family-based approach to the child welfare system: an integration of Bowen family theory concepts. Journal of Family Social Work. 2019;22(3):231-252.

By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Dr. Amy Marschall is a clinical psychologist who works with children and adolescents. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.