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BOWEN NATURAL SYSTEMS THEORY
Emotional system: A naturally occurring process that allows an organism to take in information,
integrate that information, and then respond in their environment based on that information.
Feeling system: Component we are aware of that is built off of the emotional system.
Intellectual system: A person’s ability to be cognizant and understand what is occurring around
Individuality: How much a person can be an individual, utilizing autonomous thinking system,
while being part of the group.
Differentiation of self: The dynamic of how much a person can be an individual while being in
emotional contact with people in the relational field.
Anxiety: How an organism reacts when exposed to a real or imagined threat.
Triangles: The smallest stable unit of relationships. A three-person system that, in the short
term, helps to decrease anxiety. Yet in the long-term it maintains chronic anxiety.
Nuclear family emotional process: The notion that families are a system in which emotional
functioning is impacted by the undifferentiation between family members.
Family projection process: The context in which one child experiences more of the family
system’s anxiety, through an overinvolvement with parents.
Multigenerational transmission process: The process of some children having higher and
lower levels of differentiation, based on parents focusing anxiety on one child more than another.
This process occurs generation after generation.
Sibling position: Based on when a child is born, there are certain functional roles that a person
will take on which impacts, to some degree, that person’s personality characteristics.
Emotional cutoff: When a person emotionally distances from others.
I-Positions: When a person can calmly discuss his or her position without criticizing or trying to
change someone else’s position.
Family evaluation: The process of therapist and family member(s) collaboratively exploring the
various aspects of the family.
Multiple Choice Questions
1.) According to Natural Systems theory, which of the following is not one of the three main
systems that impact a family?
2.) According to Natural Systems theory, which is the first system to shut down when an
organism becomes stressed?
3.) According to Natural Systems theory, a person would most likely become symptomatic
a. anxiety is low and differentiation is low
b. anxiety is low and differentiation is high
c. anxiety is high and differentiation is low
d. anxiety is high and differentiation is high
4.) The notion that people are individuals while still being connected to others is known as:
a. differentiation of self
c. nuclear family emotional process
d. emotional cutoff
5.) In regards to differentiation, children tend to:
a. have a lower level of differentiation
b. have the same level of differentiation
c. have a higher level of differentiation
d. do not have a level of differentiation
6.) What is the most effective way to bind anxiety?
a. to separate oneself from others
b. through emotional cutoff
c. through relationships
d. to increase one’s acute anxiety
7.) What is the smallest stable unit of relationships?
a. a one-person system
b. a two-person system
c. a three-person system
d. a four-person system
8.) Which of the following is not one of the functional roles in triangles?
a. anxiety generator
b. anxiety amplifier
c. anxiety dampener
d. anxiety accelerator
9.) Which of the following is not one of the three processes a family uses to absorb the
undifferentiation energy of the family projection process?
a. emotional cutoff
b. illness in a spouse
c. marital conflict
d. impairment in a child
10.) The multigenerational transmission process would hold that in a family:
a. all members would have the same level of differentiation
b. some children would have higher and lower levels of differentiation
c. some children would not have a level of differentiation
d. all members would focus anxiety evenly on each other
11.) Which sibling position is usually the most responsible?
a. The first born
b. The middle born
c. The last born
d. An only child
12.) When a person emotionally distances from others, this is considered to be a:
b. undifferentiated ego mass
d. multigenerational transmission process
13.) The main goal of Bowenian therapy is:
a. improving members’ self-esteem
b. increasing members’ basic level of differentiation
c. increasing members’ meaning making systems
d. improving members’ symbolic representation of the problem
14.) Therapists model differentiation by calmly discussing their own position without criticizing
the client’s position. This is known as:
b. undifferentiated ego mass
c. emotional reactivity
15.) Sylvia and Patrick recently got into an argument. Sylvia told her best friend, Amanda, that
she is frustrated with Patrick. This is an example of:
b. undifferentiated ego mass
c. emotional neutrality
16.) On the scale of differentiation, being completely emotionally neutral would be:
17.) A therapist will remain involved but untriangled between marital partners in order to:
a. increase each member’s self-esteem
b. balance the couple’s balance of ledgers
c. move each partner to accept more responsibility for the problem
d. understand past symbolic relational impasses
18.) According to Natural Systems theory, one of the main ways to assist families is for the
therapist to attempt to:
a. highlight failed solution attempts
b. decrease anxiety in the family system
c. engage in multidirected partiality
d. create a mandala of the family
19.) The role of the Bowenian therapist may best be described as:
a. a mentor
b. an instigator
c. a hope agent
d. a coach
20.) From a Bowenian perspective, the family as a unit:
a. includes just the individual client
b. includes the client’s nuclear family
c. includes a network that extends beyond the nuclear family
d. does not exist
1. How can you view your own family through the relationships between members?
2. How are people outside of the nuclear family, including past generations included in
3. What does it mean to define a self?
4. How can you determine a person’s basic differentiation from their functional
5. What aspects of the family evaluation process do you find the most important to
understand how a family functions?
6. What would a genogram of your family look like?
7. What aspects of sibling position play into the family projection process?
8. Explain the relationship between differentiation of self, anxiety, and symptoms.
9. How come a therapist cannot use an individual perspective to understand how
problems develop and are maintained from a Bowenian perspective?
10. Why does a Bowenian therapist make a distinction between content and process?
The Duncan family is coming to therapy because there have been frequent arguments
between Mr. and Mrs. Duncan, Mark and Christine. Mark is 42 years old and is an accountant.
Christine is 40 years old and is a second grade teacher. They have one child, Ed, who recently
turned 18. Three months ago, Ed started college at a university several states away from where
Mark and Christine live.
The Duncan family is African-American and Catholic. Mark comes from a family of
three where he was the middle child. His father was a foreman at a construction site while his
mother was a stay-at-home mother. His older brother, Donald, is currently in jail due to burglary
charges related to drug use. His younger sister, Natassia, is married, has two children, and works
as a real estate agent.
Christine is the oldest child of two. Her parents divorced when she was seven years old.
She and her brother, Bill, went to live with her mother. She saw her father every other weekend.
Bill did not complete college and currently works odd jobs to support himself.
Although Mark and Christine have had times of disagreement in their marriage, even
periodically yelling at one another, they did not start to have the level of antagonism and conflict
in their relationship they currently have until approximately five months ago. They have begun
to call each other names and Mark has moved out of their shared bedroom and is now sleeping in
the guest room. They brought up the notion of divorce, although neither party says that things
have gotten so bad that they want that to happen. They each feel that divorce goes against the
teachings of their religion.
Mark told Ed about their current living situation two months ago while talking to Ed on
the phone. Ed asked him if he wanted Ed to come back home so they would not have the
financial burden of sending him to an out-of-state school. Mark said that Ed should stay in
school as he and Christine have worked their lives to ensure Ed got a good education and became
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New York: Haworth Press.
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