Mira Jamal M80000771 PSY410-‐ Individual and family assessment PSY 410: Individual and Family Assessment—FALL 2012/2013 Family Assessment -‐Bowen’s Family System Theory-‐ Prepared for Dr. Man Chung Zayed University, Abu Dhabi Prepared by Mira Jamal M80000771 January 28, 2013
Mira Jamal M80000771 PSY410-‐ Individual and family assessment Murray Bowen, M.D., developed the family system theory; which views the family as an “emotional unit,” and involves 8 different concepts that are used to describe the complicated interactions and relationships within the family. Bowen believed that family members are emotionally connected on a very extreme level, which means they all have an affect on each other’s behavior and emotions. Through this paper, I will use Murray Bowen’s family system theory to assess and understand Asma’s family. In addition, I will include my own criticisms towards this theory, and later discuss the problems with using this particular theory in assessing Asma’s family. Asma was born into a family system that includes her mother, Fatima, father, Ahmad, 2 uncles, Rashid and Hamad, and her grandfather, Mohammed, all under the same roof. Since Asma was born, her mother was over-‐powered by Asma’s uncles and grandfather, which made her mother anxious all the time, yet dependant on everyone else to help raise her child. When Asma was 3, her father was kicked out of the family because he stole from them. This meant that Asma’s parents got divorced, and she did not see her father until she was 18. Asma’s uncles took over her father’s role, and became father figures. When Asma was 7, her uncle Rashid and grandfather were in an accident, which completely paralyzed her grandfather from the neck down and damaged Rashid’s spine, which meant he could no longer walk. Her mother took responsibility of caring for both of them; meaning Asma was no longer the centre of attention at all times. Fatima felt guilty about her daughter not having a father, and because of the accident, she could not always be there for Asma. She would try to make up for it by always giving in to her demands of attention and whatever Asma asked for, she got! Her mother was scared that Asma would get into trouble and feel neglected, so she would always try and make Asma happy. Asma would throw tantrums and hit her mother, as she would never get in trouble for it and eventually got what she was screaming about. Fatima would throw the biggest parties for Asma, and would always boast about her daughter to other people, to make her daughter feel special. Asma has been to 7 different schools throughout her education years, because she was not happy. At the end of every year, her mother would ask Asma if she was happy at that particular school, and if her answer was no, then Fatima would put her into another one. When Asma was 17, she became depressed and started going for therapy. Her mother often blamed Asma’s father for the life that she had, and would cry on a daily basis. Today Asma is a 25 year-‐old lady, who is financially dependant on her mother and uncles, and is very spoiled. She resents her uncles, expects to get whatever she desires, and acts selfishly with her decisions. She is very attached to her boyfriend and expects a lot from him. She is always looking for wild things to do, but has the ability to make decisions without getting her own emotions involved. Although Asma graduated from university 2 years ago, she refuses to get a job. Instead she is traveling the world and when she does come home, she is always out. Her mother is always stressed out and worried about her daughter, and she turns to religion to make herself feel better.
Mira Jamal M80000771 PSY410-‐ Individual and family assessment Triangles Looking at Bowen’s concept of triangles, we can find a lot of them in Asma’s family. However, since her family involves more than 3 members and there is often a lot of tension, we can find an interlocking of triangles. With the above diagram, we can find many smaller triangles that make it all up. The first triangle is Fatima, Asma, and Ahmad. When Fatima and Ahmad first got married, they were a tight couple. However, when Asma was added, creating a triangle, Fatima would often avoid the tension between her husband and herself by focusing on Asma. This eventually lead to Fatima and Asma having a close relationship, making them the insiders of the triangle, and left Ahmed as the outsider. If Asma misbehaved, Fatima would ask the father to interfere, which kept Fatima on good terms with her daughter. This proves Bowen’s point where he explains that people try to maintain a close relationship while trying to handle anxiety by bringing in a third person (Rabstejnek, n.d.). In addition, Fatima also kept Ahmad as the outsider by blaming him for everything that would go wrong in their lives. This made Asma view her father as a distant person who was the “enemy.” However, there is also another way at looking at the triangles. Looking at the above diagram, we can see that Fatima and Asma have a constant relationship. However, when there is tension between them, Fatima often brings in a third or fourth party (person 1, person 2), to help ease the tension. This way, Fatima did not have to worry about ruining the relationship between her daughter and herself, and instead would have others do the Hamad Fatima Ahmad Asma Rashid Grandpa Person 1 Person 2 Asma Fatima
Mira Jamal M80000771 PSY410-‐ Individual and family assessment disciplining. I would say that this triangle of relationships became more obvious after Asma’s father got kicked out. Fatima often felt guilty about her daughter not having a father, so she found it easier to show her daughter that she was always on her side. As a result, we can say that Asma was the outsider in the family, but her mother, who was an insider, would often take her side. Although there are many interlocking triangles in the family, through assessing her family, I found that the outsider is not always a person. For example-‐ When Fatima feels anxiety or tension with any of the other family members, she uses religion to help her deal with it. This means that there is another triangle, which involves Fatima, a family member, and religion. Another triangle we can find that does not involve a person is with Asma. After she graduated from university, she started dealing with the tension in the family by traveling. Therefore, this new triangle would include Asma, a family member, and travel as the outsider. Differentiation, Marital Conflict, Dysfunction of One Spouse, & Family Projection Looking at Bowen’s second concept of differentiation, which looks at the ability of family members to separate their “emotional and intellectual spheres,” I found that Fatima has a poorly differentiated self. Bowen (1976) described a differentiated self as a solid self, and an undifferentiated self as a pseudo self. Basically meaning that a solid self knows what they need and they are aware of the relationships around them, while the pseudo self acts to please others to gain their approval (Rabstejnek, n.d.). Looking at this family, we can see that Fatima would fall under the pseudo-‐self category because of her need to make everyone around her happy. She allowed her father and brothers to over-‐power her when it came to raising Asma, and she often went along with what they say. She would never stand up for herself, she took responsibility of taking care of her father and brother after the accident, she is scared to discipline Asma when she misbehaves, and she always gives in to Asma’s tantrums. Fatima does not work, and gets her satisfaction by making sure that everyone else is happy. She also seeks their approvals, which are all signs of a poorly differentiated self (The Bowen centre, n.d.). In addition, she finds it hard to deal with stress, which results in her crying every day. However, we may question how did Fatima develop a low differentiated self. Although Bowen mentioned that a poorly differentiated self results in the child if the parents focus too much on the problem child, leading to child to be poorly differentiated, Bowen did not mention anything about differentiation in parents. To gain a deeper understanding behind Fatima’s low differentiated self, we would first have to look at the marital conflict. Initially there was no marital conflict between Fatima and Ahmad, which if we followed Bowen’s theory, he would say that there cannot be any dysfunction in one spouse. Nevertheless, I would have to argue with Bowen on this
Mira Jamal M80000771 PSY410-‐ Individual and family assessment point. It is quite obvious that Fatima’s dysfunction is not from Ahmed (since he is not even in the picture), but from her father and brother’s constant over powering and pressure on Fatima to agree with them on everything. This may be the reason behind Fatima’s crying, feelings of anxiety, and constant seeking for approval. One may wonder why does Fatima give in to her father and brother? To answer this, I believe that it goes back to her ex-‐husband Ahmad. Before Fatima and Ahmad got married, Fatima’s family did not approve of their relationship. However, Fatima convinced the family that Ahmad was a “good” man. However, since Ahmed stole from the family, which disappointed Fatima and proved her family right, I believe that her feelings of guilt arose from this. She believed that she is to blame for what Ahmad had done, and therefore, is seeking forgiveness from her father and brothers by always trying to please them. In conclusion, we may speculate that her poorly differentiated self is a result of her dysfunction, which is not from her relationship with Ahmad, but from her father and brothers. Although there was no initial marital conflict when Ahmad was present, we can see a rise of marital conflict at a later time, when Asma was all grown up. We can find that although Fatima wanted approval from everyone in the family, she used her husband as a person that she would externalise her anxiety on by blaming him for everything. For example, whenever Asma would rebel or act inappropriately, Fatima would blame the father, by saying that if he never did what he did, Asma would never have acted out. This not only gave rise to marital conflict, but the increased tensions also lead to an impairment of their child, which is linked to Bowen’s concept of Family Projection. Looking at all the problems in the family, including the divorce, the accident, and the high levels of anxiety, Asma eventually got depression. Fatima was so focused on her child, where she would give in to Asma’s demands because of her guilt for all the problems, Asma only became worse by internalizing all the family tensions which affected her well-‐being and academic performance. Looking back at differentiation, unlike Fatima, Asma shows signs of a solid self. She is able to not get her emotions tangled up with her decisions, and knows what she wants to do and does it. Although she can be very selfish, and makes decisions that make her happy, she does not seek approval of others and does not care about what others think of her. However, although Asma does show signs of a solid self, we can also find signs of a poorly differentiated, or pseudo self. Throughout her childhood she would look for ways to rebel against the family, and she often did this by smoking or sneaking out of the house. In addition, although she is confident in her decisions and thoughts, she does not act selflessly for the benefit of the group, and only does what she wants. As a result of finding a solid and pseudo self in Asma, I would have to criticize Bowen’s theory of differentiation on this as well. Bowen explained differentiation as two separate categories, and not that a person can be in between the solid and pseudo self. Due to the marital conflict, missing father, and
Mira Jamal M80000771 PSY410-‐ Individual and family assessment dysfunction in her mother, I would say that Asma is psychologically confused. She also is well aware that her mother will always be on her side, because of the guilt that she feels. This has led Asma to not only be confused, but to be a very manipulative person; by taking advantage of her mother’s guilt to get what she wants. As a result, I would say that due to everything that Asma has been through, she has learned to put off a persona of a highly differentiated self as a defence mechanism, which does not allow her symptoms of a poorly differentiated self to show clearly. We can also link Asma’s need to rebel to Bowen’s concept of Family projection. Bowen mentioned that when children inherit the emotional problems of the parents, they might act “impulsively to relieve the tension or anxiety rather than tolerate it,” (Martin, n.d.). We can see that Asma may have absorbed the tension from the parents, as well as the emotional instability, and as a result she feels the need to act wild. Under the family projection concept, we can also find a link between Fatima being worried that Asma will feel neglected, hence giving her everything she demands, and this resulting in Asma being dependant on her mother to satisfy her need, instead of growing independently and maturely. Emotional Distance, Emotional Cut-‐off, and Marital Conflict Bowen also mentioned emotional distance, where people “may move away from their families, rarely go home, or avoid sensitive issues” (The Bowen Centre, n.d.). We can see this trait in Asma as she grew older. She would always want to go out and hated staying at home. In addition to this, Asma’s relationship with her father shows that she has turned to Emotional Cut-‐off. She met her father when she was 18 and they got along quite well for a year, but she suddenly stopped answering his calls and now refuses to speak to him. I believe that she has never forgiven him for what he did, and instead of dealing with the problem, she found it easier to completely cut off any emotional connections with him. In addition, I believe that Asma’s emotional cut-‐off has to do with the marital tension between her parents as well. After Asma reconnected with her father, to fill that hole of a missing father, I believe that she became even more confused because of her mother’s mixed signals. Although her mother never argued with Asma directly for contacting her father, she would constantly say how her father was a bad man for doing what he did, and blamed him for all the bad things that happened in their life. Bowen’s concept of Emotional Cut-‐off involves completely cutting any emotional ties to avoid dealing with the tension. I believe Asma has done this with her father, to avoid dealing with the increased tension between her parents and herself, after the reconnection. Bowen also mentioned “people reduce the tensions of family interactions by cutting off, but risk making their new relationships too important.” I think that this makes sense, as I noticed that Asma expects a lot from her
Mira Jamal M80000771 PSY410-‐ Individual and family assessment boyfriend, and pushes him to be what she wants him to be, just like Bowen predicted (The Bowen Centre, n.d.). Multi Generational Transmission process The final concept is Bowen’s idea of Multi Generational Transmission Process, which states “children are affected by the emotional demands of the triangle, and not genetically predispositioned to malfunction” (Rabstejnek, n.d.). Although I believe that Bowen has a point in this, explaining that children grow up to be the way they are because of the triangles of relationships which have an effect on them, as well as their parents’ differentiation levels (Martin, n.d.), I do not think that the way a person is, can be entirely blamed on that; their personality and experiences have a major influence as well. This may help in explaining Fatima’s poorly differentiated self, as it may be due to the relationship between her own parents when she was little. However, since her mother is dead, there is no way in really knowing without investigating Fatima’s own childhood. The biggest problems I faced while applying Bowen’s theory to this family is that his theory tends to discount the fact that not all families are as simple as a three-‐person triangle. As you can see, Asma’s family is extremely complicated, as she lives with her extended family, and does not have any siblings. In addition, although Bowen stated that the family unit is like they are living under the same “emotional skin,” I found that not all members would necessarily be affected. For example, there are certain families where one particular member is so distant that no matter what he/she does, there is no affect on others. For example, in Asma’s family, although her uncle Hamad lives with them, he tends to live in his own world where he goes to work and comes back, having no influence on others around him. Another problem I found was that Bowen tended to label people as “the problem child,” “the insider”, and “the outsider,” but doesn’t emphasize that it is not always the same person. In Asma’s case, I found that the outsider and insider changed all the time, which made it hard to keep track of who was the tension reliever, and who wasn’t. The final problem I had with this theory is that a lot of his concepts seem to be black and white. When in actual fact, families are very complicated and usually fall into the grey area of Bowen’s concepts. For example, when I wanted to describe the differentiation concept, I realised that people can have characteristics of both a solid self as well as a pseudo self. For this reason, I had a few problems with fitting Bowen’s cookie cutter concepts with Asma’s family. In conclusion, I would say that Bowen’s family system theory has some interesting concepts that can be applied to help in understanding a family’s structure and influence on each other. However, I think that his theory needs to be revised to allow the complex
Mira Jamal M80000771 PSY410-‐ Individual and family assessment families of today to be able to apply his theory to their own family dynamic. It is a complicated system, but if revised, can be useful and interesting. References Bowen Theory. (n.d.). Retrieved from The Bowen Center: http://www.thebowencenter.org/pages/conceptec.html Martin, L. (n.d.). Murray Bowen, M.D. and The Nine Concepts in Family Systems Theory. Retrieved from Ideas to Action: http://ideastoaction.wordpress.com/dr-‐bowen/ Rabstejnek, C. (n.d.). Family Systems and Murray Bowen Theory. Houd.info. Retrieved on 19 January 2013