When I graduated from seminary in the spring of 1982, I had never heard of family systems theory. I began a degree program in alcoholism and drug abuse counseling in the fall of 1982 and was introduced to the writings of psychiatrist Murray Bowen. After reading his book, “Family Therapy in Clinical Practice,” I knew I would never be the same again. The concepts he articulated made so much sense, and I immediately saw the value of their practical application in addressing issues in my own family of origin and pastoral ministry.
Many church leaders know something about Bowen’s theory, but far less know much about Bowen himself. Bowen was born in 1913 in Waverly, Tennessee. He was the firstborn of Jess Sewell Bowen and Maggie May Luff’s five children. His father owned the funeral home in small-town Waverly. He earned a B.S. degree from the University of Tennessee in 1934, and an M.D. degree from the University of Tennessee Medical School in 1937. He interned at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and the Grasslands Hospital in Valhalla, New York, from 1939-41.
After his medical training, Bowen served five years in the U. S. Army during World War II – rising from the rank of lieutenant to major. Although accepted into a fellowship in surgery at the Mayo Clinic after the war, Bowen’s focus changed from surgery to psychiatry — a result of his wartime experiences. Bowen began developing his family systems theory while in medical school and in his early days of psychiatric training.
He began psychiatric training in 1946 at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, and remained at Menninger until 1954. He then embarked on a five-year research adventure at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The project involved having families with an adult child with schizophrenia living in a research hospital ward for long periods of time. Yes, he admitted the whole family to the hospital to study the entire “family system” and their respective interactions and functioning.
His early work with schizophrenic families ultimately led him to conclude that there is some degree of craziness and schizophrenic splitting in all of us. He thought that what exists in extreme forms in schizophrenic families exists to lesser degrees in us all.
Bowen sought to develop a scientific theory based on cellular biology (not psychology) that addresses why human beings behave the way they do. His theory began by studying how both healthy and unhealthy cells function. He coined the phrase “differentiation of self” and called it his “cornerstone concept.” His phrase “differentiation of self” is borrowed from cellular biology’s concept of “differentiation of cells” — the process where cells “differentiate” and ultimately become distinct, separate cells (i.e., brain cells, liver cells, etc.) while simultaneously remaining connected to the entire organism. Bowen’s “differentiation of self” is synonymous with human “maturity.” The two terms are interchangeable. Incidentally, Bowen strongly prefers the phrase “differentiation of self” over “self-differentiation.”
Bowen believed that human beings possess the capacity, in varying degrees, to “differentiate” — an innate and evolving drive and desire to become a distinct, balanced self, sufficiently separate, while simultaneously remaining healthily connected to one’s family of origin and others. Differentiation of self begins the human maturation process. Bowen sought to answer this question: If human beings possess this instinctual, God-given capacity to mature, why are they so prone to immaturity, factions, divisiveness, petty splintering, judging, “cutoff,” alienation, aggression and violence? As he studied the process by which cells differentiate and mature, Bowen noted correlations between how cells differentiate and how individuals, families, organizations and institutions function. Several noted authors like Rabbi Edwin Friedman, Peter Steinke, Ronald Richardson, Robert Creech, Trisha Taylor, Israel Galindo and others have advanced Bowen’s theory by applying its principles to faith communities.
Bowen understood highly “differentiated persons,” (i.e., highly mature persons), as minimally possessing the following twelve capacities. They are:
- The capacity to define one’s true or basic self clearly;
- The capacity to take a stand;
- The capacity to manage anxiety non-reactively (i.e., to possess “emotional objectivity”) with no counter-attacking;
- The capacity to think rationally rather than respond with emotional reactivity;
- The capacity (or courage) to make decisions based on well-defined principles;
- The capacity to regulate or modify oneself maturely (i.e., be self focused rather than other focused);
- The capacity to be non-blaming;
- The capacity to maintain healthy, separate boundaries (i.e., boundaries that are neither too porous or too rigid);
- The capacity to maintain healthy, balanced functioning in the system — no prolonged under or over-functioning;
- The capacity to “de-triangle” (i.e., stay out of the middle of other persons’ emotional space and issues);
- The capacity to develop “person to person relationships”;
- The capacity to stay connected or related to all (but especially key) persons in the system.
Bowen’s 12 capacities of “differentiation of self” are helpful because they offer a template of what the highest levels of human maturity ideally look like and simultaneously provide guidance for achieving this level of maturity. Here’s a brief example of how it works.
While a pastor on Long Island, the young, local rabbi and I became friends. A woman from my congregation married a man from his. They had a baby and the baby died after three days. The couple asked us both to officiate a joint funeral service. My friend said a remarkably “differentiated” thing to me: “I am going to do what I normally do in this funeral service, and I expect the same of you. Please do not alter or compromise your theology or liturgy because of me.” I was experiencing true ecumenism at work.
Pondering the various constructs of “differentiation of self,” it is clear that the young rabbi elegantly demonstrated all 12.
- He defined himself clearly;
- He took a stand;
- He was “non-anxious”;
- He demonstrated clear, rational thinking;
- He based his decisions on well-defined principles;
- He focused on his own functioning — not mine;
- His position was non-defensive and non-blaming;
- He demonstrated healthy personal, professional and religious boundaries;
- He neither over-functioned nor under-functioned;
- He did not get pulled into the anxious “emotional field” of conducting a joint funeral service and stayed out of the middle of the couple’s and our religious differences;
- He remained connected to all; and
- He maintained a “person to person relationship” with the couple and me.
Remarkably, he accomplished all of this in just two sentences!
David Lee Jones is a fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and directed Austin Seminary’s doctor of ministry program from 2003 to 2012. He currently serves as affiliate professor of pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin.