The family systems theory was created by Dr. Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist and Professor in Psychiatry at Georgetown University. The theory views families as whole systems, rather than just collections of individuals. According to the theory, individuals must be seen as parts of a system and cannot be analysed in isolation from one another. Bowen argues that the family is a network of dynamics and if one member leaves, then another member will fill their place in the system. This means that family dynamics are interdependent and the circumstances of one family member are inextricably linked to the others. 

Bowen claimed that there was a natural tension in all families, between the need for closeness and the need for individuation. This tension leads to different family members taking up roles in the family as a form of release, for example, the scapegoat, the ‘black sheep,’ the surrogate spouse and the patient. According to Bowen, the black sheep actually has a unifying effect on the family because the family unites by talking about and attempting to solve the black sheep’s problems.

We take our roles in the family system into our adult lives, and this is where this work is significant. It may be helpful to bring consciousness to the role/s we adopted in our family of origin and to see if this pattern is continuing in ways that we find unfulfilling in our adult lives. 

What is the pattern of your family? Is it rigid, distant, enmeshed, fused, conflicted or cut off? 

Another interesting aspect of this theory is the idea that family dynamics continue throughout generations. This means that the same patterns will be played out over centuries if ideas and behaviours remain the same. These include patterns of relating, addiction, self-sabotage, abuse, compulsion, and illness. In short, if we don’t bring consciousness to the dynamics of our families, we will pass them on to our children and their children. Families also influence our socio-cultural perceptions and the way that we interact with power hierarchies and society.