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Stopping by After Forty Years — Part 2


Read Part 1 of Douglas Ort’s three-part series by clicking here.

“…a view from the upper air.”

“The most enduring prejudices are the comfortable ones, those hidden up close; seeing the world as it is requires some distance, a view from the upper air.” —Charles King, Gods of the Upper Air (New York: Doubleday, 2019).

We live in a world in which it is commonly believed that getting close to something is the high road to understanding. Poking around in the entrails of component parts is thought to be the path to the heart of the matter.

Au contraire. Over my lifetime, whether as an intercept analyst in the USAF Security Service, a researcher for Present Truth/Verdict, a pastor of congregations, or as a therapist, mine has been to practice coarse graining (an idea from physics), the art of filtering out extraneous material, or dialing out when I’m trying to understand patterns. Over time I’ve learned more from thinking big picture than not.

Which helps explain my attraction to Bowen theory.

In 1986 I discovered Edwin Friedman’s Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. When I finished my first read, I knew I had discovered a world-and-life view that I would likely carry with me for the rest of my life. At the time I was serving a United Church of Christ congregation (a denomination from New England congregationalism) as pastor. Friedman’s brilliant work provided me with a mature and robust conceptual framework to understand family conflict dynamics in the congregation, and my part in them.

Bowen theory is grounded first of all in not focusing on others, but in staying focused on self’s functioning inside one’s own family and within one’s own multi-generational family history. It is about remaining a grounded (that is, a differentiated) self in the presence of anxious others. Self-differentiation and being anxious (which Bowen regards as automatic reactivity, meaning biological sensitivities that are not mediated through thinking) are on a continuum of functioning, with all of us somewhere on the line, with our toes pointed on one direction or the other.

Bowen theory does not focus on the content of one’s thinking. Rather, it’s on how one manages anxiety in the presence of anxious others or anxious thinking/ideas. No matter the issue (Brinsmead, 1844, health challenges in self or others, marital conflict, etc.), the theory’s focus is how self-differentiation serves personal responsibility and, conversely, how anxiety shifts one’s focus away from personal responsibility (as when self-regulation devolves in the direction of minimization, avoidance, denial, victim thinking, blaming others, or aggression).

As a therapist, my first responsibility is to be less anxious with anxious others (ever learning from the ongoing discipline of how I engage my own family history with members living or dead). Also, Bowen’s eight principles guide my curiosity as I learn about the family I’m dealing with (regardless of the number of people in the room). As I learn, and share with clients what I’m learning, they learn about themselves. The self of the therapist is itself the engine of the therapeutic process. Thinking Bowen theory, self is more a verb than a noun. The principles that guide this process scale well from parents to presidents (and certainly to congregations and their leaders).

Ed Friedman’s remarkably creative application of Murray Bowen’s family systems theory to congregational and synagogue life — Ed Friedman was an ordained Rabbi throughout his most productive teaching years — turned out to be one of the most vital contributions to seminary training in the late twentieth century. Dr. Bowen’s great insight was to conceptualize the family, not simply as an aggregate of individuals, but as an emotional system, with each member understood only in relation to all of the others, never siloed off from others. We are who we are in the mix. As a psychiatrist, Bowen abandoned the individualism prevalent in psychiatry and psychology in the 1950s (almost all variants of therapy today, as well as DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5, are built on individualist thinking). Every major variant of family systems theory today stands on the shoulders of Murray Bowen’s pioneering work. It grounds the human family in the natural order, and individuals/families are understood more clearly through the disciplined rigor of scientific observation. Organisms are colonies of cells and families are colonies of members in time and across generations.

To sum up:

A family is not simply the collection of member individuals. It is a relationship system. People function as they do, not because of their personality or nature, but because of their position in a relationship system.

System: A set of relationships that, upon achieving dynamic balance, functions to maintain that balance through compensations that arise from within. These processes are automatic and largely invisible.

Differentiation: A term from biology (really embryology) that refers to maintaining a healthy position for self within a relationship system through thoughtful connecting and clarity. Differentiation is about ones’ capacity to be autonomous while remaining connected. A higher level of self-differentiation is known by maintaining a less-anxious presence in the presence of anxious others or around an anxious issue.

Ed Friedman provided the brilliant insight that the human immune system and the family emotional system are not simply analogous to one another; they are homologous, that is, they share parallel evolutionary pathways.

Following Friedman’s keen insights, over the years I’ve studied auto-immune disorders (there are more than a hundred at recent count, see for example as a way to understand how hosts and pathogens interact, and I’ve found remarkable parallels to how toxic social/environmental/economic/religious influences affect family systems. Of course, I’m (over)simplifying for clarity. When hosts have clear boundaries of “self,” they can more clearly “read” the “not self” of potential pathogens, and respond with resources in measure with perceived risk. When, however, a host is not as well defined, when its “self” is not well-differentiated, it will tend to over-perceive or under-perceive pathogenic challenges.

A central feature of Friedman’s thinking is that hosts are not “done in” by the virulence of a pathogen as much as by the host’s toleration of the pathogen. Said simply, it’s not as much about what happens to families as it is about what family leaders do with challenges. To illustrate the point: click here for a recent explanation of the dynamic nature of host-parasite interaction that I have found useful, something I’ve handed out to certain clients and colleagues.

Bowen theory frames family life not mainly in terms of idiosyncratic opportunities and challenges, but of structural features of one’s system in its current emotional environment, as well as across generations. Its eight elements can be understood only within a framework of how each recursively influences, and is influenced by, each of the others. They transcend race, creed, culture, national origin, religion, and all of the other features that are commonly recognized in contemporary social science understandings of mental and social health. Bowen understood the differentiation process in families as homologous to the differentiation process of cells in multi-cellular organisms that predate humans. So, for me, when I work with families and I think about what is happening in various parts of the family system, I am not merely drawing analogies from non-human species to human families. The process of one to the other is not analogous (using one to illustrate another) but homologous (describing a parallel evolutionary pathway).

Over my counseling career I’ve worked with people from a wide variety of faith communities. Even when clients present with concerns that involve some element of their own faith tradition, inevitably I find that the foreground is deeply informed by background features that are well accounted for by Bowen theory. Families have much more in common with one another than they have differences. While I account for differences of race, creed, color, national origin, socio-economic status (and others), these serve as do stains on a slip under a microscope: the stain is not what one focuses on, it merely serves as a way to observe the main features of an object of interest. Said another way, humans are pattern recognition creatures. The idiosyncrasies of a family’s story inevitably reveal patterns common to the wider human experience, over time and across generations.

Bowen theory is all about self and systems, particularly self in systems. From when I first learned of it in 1986 to the present, I’ve employed the theory to, first of all, understand myself and my own family history, and to submit to the discipline of coaching and training by others so as to better ground myself. All clinical supervision that I currently provide is built on helping therapists understand self better as they work with clients. We do not focus on client issues, as such. This is the nature of self-focus that is central to one’s practical and theoretical understanding of the theory. Self-focus is all about practicing personal self-regulation (that is, dialing down anxiety) in the presence of client family challenges that are inevitably organized around other-focus (which elevates anxiety in all relationship systems). Other-focus is a way of thinking and behaving that focuses on others, to get others to change, or (contrarily) to privilege one’s own status as a victim, so that self will continue to enjoy the comfort of not having to change. Bowen theory is inherently anti-blaming, anti-victim. It accounts for the influences of others, but its focus is on the conduct of self.

Permit me to circle back to how I engage dissent when addressing contested ideas or relationships, and how this is informed by Bowen theory and my abiding pursuit of good theology and responsible biblical studies, both with client families and faith-oriented colleagues.

First, I begin with the premise that leadership is everything. When leaders are less anxious about how they lead, followers can have less drama in how they follow. Good leadership is about vision, clarity, and thoughtfulness. Self-differentiated leaders avoid will conflict. They know the difference between being right and being effective.

Second, I think in terms of systems and how individuals function over time in relationship systems. Patterns of behavior have more significance to me than the idiosyncratic features of individuals. Individualism is in the air we breathe, but it is not helpful for me to understand others. And, while individuals are certainly in scripture, individualism is not.

Third, I take time to monitor self in any contested space. Keeping my own anxiety away from anxious people and ideas is crucial to how I practice self (and in this sense self is more a verb than a noun), and how I contribute to reducing anxiety with anxious others (when that is possible). Advice, diagnosing, taking sides, focusing on content, all are other-focused and all elevate anxiety.

Fourth, I listen to and acknowledge foreground concerns of others, because these are where persons experience pain and challenge. I use questions to clarify my own mind, and I share with others what seems clear to me.

Fifth, I share questions that facilitate challenge (and perhaps growth). Why do you think Jesus is all about questions?

Sixth, I avoid naivety (thinking uncritically positive) and cynicism (defaulting to negative). Both are other-focused and each elevates anxiety in self and others.

Seventh, I look for evidence of fusion, expressed as either aggression (trying to change the other) or emotional cut-off (inappropriate distancing). Fusion is other-focused, and therefore dials up anxiety and reactivity. And fusion distorts what one sees and how one sees it, expressed as either awfulizing (“X is destroying the church”) or missing matters that really need attention. Trying to will others to change is a sign of being too close. Avoiding, denying, minimizing, or some version of I-don’t-want-to-know-that-I-know, are all evidences of fusion. When one can stay connected to contentious others, without either trying to change the other (to make self feel better) or change oneself (to make the other feel better), one is practicing the kind of responsible presence that can be redemptive.

Eighth, people do not choose good because it is good, nor do they avoid bad because it is bad. People default to the familiar, and they avoid the unfamiliar. The organizing principle of most family or organizational systems is comfort (another way of understanding homeostasis, the propensity of a system to protect its “integrity” by organizing around familiar patterns of belonging). For a family to change, its leader must demonstrate courage in the face of regressive influences that automatically act to protect the status quo.

In Part 3, I shall share how I understand scripture. And I shall apply the principles of systems theory to some SDA experiences forty years ago. Four decades have passed, and I’ve learned a bit. This is my way to view matters again, this time from the upper air.


Read Part 1 here and look for Part 3 on December 13


Douglas Ort is a private-practice Licensed Mental Health Counselor in New York State. He earned a Master of Divinity degree at Queen’s Theological College, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, a seminary of the United Church of Canada. In the 1970s he was Research Editor for Robert Brinsmead’s Present Truth/Verdict. His over thirty years of study and practice of Bowen family systems theory, combined with his life-long disciplined study of theology and biblical studies, provides him a unique perspective as a counselor and as a teacher with professional and lay audiences over the past thirty years and more.

Photo by Vladimir Kudinov on Unsplash


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